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Barnett can't stop loving Don Gibson

By Henry Carrigan, November 2013

Mandy Barnett has been singing big since she was five years old, gracing county fairs, political rallies and church services with her riveting voice. At 18, she captured audiences' hearts at the Ryman Auditorium with her portrayal of Patsy Cline in "Always…Patsy Cline," channeling Cline's spacious alto.

On her new album, "I Can't Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson," chanteuse Barnett pays loving tribute to Gibson with captivating interpretations of his songs.

Why did you decide to make this album now? How long did it take you to make it?
I started making it a couple of years ago, but at the time I had no idea what I was going to do. I had met Don Gibson around 2000, and I got to be close friends with him and his wife, Bobbi. He and I talked about doing an album of duets, but he was not doing so well, so I told him I was going to record an album of his songs one day. I needed to get this out of my system, so in many ways the album's been a long time in the making.

Tell me about your relationship with Don Gibson.
I was so lucky to be able to get to know Don. You know, Don was already pretty reclusive and by the time I met him his health wasn't so good, so he wasn't getting out much. Still, he heard my version of Mickey Newbury's Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings on my album, "I've Got a Right to Cry," and he came out to see me when I was playing at 3rd and Lindsley in Nashville.
After the show, he told me that my version of Newbury's song was the closest to his own version of the song that he'd ever heard. I was touched and thrilled to meet him that night, but I thought I'd never see him again. Then, one day he called and wanted to know if I'd go to lunch with him and Bobbi. We went to a Chinese buffet, and over the next three years, we'd get together a couple of times a week. He was such a sweet and humble man, and we got to be so close. He told me that no woman had ever recorded a full album of his songs.

Mandy Barnett sings

How did you select the songs for this album out of all the great Don Gibson songs?
Yeah, there are so many great ones, and I could have included so many. I spent lots of time listening to his records. I wanted to include the hits, the ones that are familiar as well as some that are not as big as others. In the end, I went with the songs that I sing the best and the ones I could relate to the most.

When did you start singing? Who are some of your musical influences?
I started singing when I was five. I'd sing at church and at political rallies - didn't matter what party - and I sang at the fair every year. The first song I ever sang, at church, was the old gospel hymn, Farther Along. The first song I sang in public was also a gospel song, The Gaithers' Because He Lives. I love to listen to the great gospel singer Lilly Fern Weatherford and her tremendous alto voice, so her singing influenced me a lot.
When I was eight, I was drawn to Patsy Cline's alto voice, but I also grew up listening to and absorbing singers like Peggy Lee, Kate Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. My mother was always singing, and she's the one who would get me to do the solos at church. My grandparents were a huge influence, and they were so supportive of my career; they were totally into what I was doing. My grandfather would have loved to have been a country star, so he was always asking me what was next for me. They were thrilled with my friendship with Don.

You produced this album and your recent "Winter Wonderland" album. How do you like producing?
I felt like this was the next step in many ways. I didn't want to have an album of songs ready to go and then have to shop it around endlessly. So, I decided to take the bull by the horns and step into producing. I didn't want to give my power away, and I decided to have more control over what happened in the studio. Owen Bradley taught me a lot about producing, including hiring the right people and letting them do what they do best. When I go into the studio, I have a vague outline of what's going to happen, and I try to be flexible and open. I know that where I'm most strong is on vocals, and I let the musicians do what they do best to surround me.

What's your favorite song on the album?
I love Blue Blue Day. I'm very fond of the way it turned out. One day I was sitting in my kitchen playing some random notes on the guitar, and I realized that I was playing this song. I called Harold Bradley and asked him if I could do the song this way, and he told me he didn't see why not. Don's original is very fast, but I've sung it as a slow ballad. I've always been a fan of Henry Mancini, and I think you can hear the influence of his music on this song, too.

What's next for you?
I'd love to make an album of pop standards, with songs by Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield, and I'd love to do a gospel album.

The new album is available exclusively at Cracker Barrel Old Country Store or online at the retailer.